Benoit-Louis Vuitton just wants anonymity sometimes, Latest Fashion News - The New Paper

Benoit-Louis Vuitton just wants anonymity sometimes

Once, Mr Benoit-Louis Vuitton was camping in a remote village in Rwanda when a group of "loud Brazilians" appeared outside his tent.

"I was by myself in the tent thinking, 'What's going on?' Then I realised they were from CNN Brazil," he recalls in a mix of amusement and exasperation.

"I looked at my watch and thought, I'd give it one hour and I was sure there'd be (at least) one journalist I'd met before. It wasn't even one hour when (one such journalist) appeared, saying, 'How are you, Benoit?'"

It is a familiar situation for the 44-year-old. With a family name like his, anonymity is elusive. He is the great-great-great-grandson of Louis Vuitton, founder of the eponymous French luxury house.

He loves travelling, but keeping a low profile is near impossible. "I'm in the middle of nowhere with no Internet connection and there's someone who knows me," Mr Vuitton tells The Straits Times in an exclusive interview.

He was in town for the first time in seven years to attend 200 Trunks, 200 Visionaries: The Exhibition, which celebrates the bicentennial birthday of the 168-year-old maison's founder.

LV, which started and made its name as a trunkmaker, invited 200 global talents and friends of the house to personalise its iconic trunk. The travelling show runs till April 27 at Marina Bay Sands (MBS) Event Plaza.

Mr Vuitton - the maison's corporate director of art, culture and patrimony - arrives for this interview at a restaurant in MBS sharply suited and tight-lipped. But he soon warms up and rattles off easily about the world of LV, breaking into cheeky grins that reveal a boyish charm.

Growing up as a Vuitton undoubtedly came with perks, but was fairly ordinary for the most part, he recalls. The Asnieres Family House, the historic home of Louis Vuitton in a commune north-west of Paris, was his playground till he was seven.

Like any young child, the younger of two sons was impish and broke glass windows playing with his older brother.

Mr Vuitton first realised the significance of his name when the family moved out of Asnieres. At school in the new town, classmates recognised him by his name.

When he attended IFAM Business School in Paris, everyone he knew wanted an internship with LV, which made the headstrong teenager wanting to chart his own path resist the idea of joining the family business even more.

In a rebellious move, the management and marketing studies major did his first internship at a hotel, where he was a receptionist for two months. He refused to ask his father, the late Patrick-Louis Vuitton, for help.

"I was, like, I don't want to hear about LVMH. But in the end, I felt stupid about it. It's good to follow your own path, but at some point, I asked myself, are you stupid?" he says.

Mr Benoit-Louis Vuitton was in town for the first time in seven years to attend 200 Trunks, 200 Visionaries: The Exhibition. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

LVMH was formed in 1987 when LV merged with spirits brand Moet Hennessy, and now owns other luxury brands such as Dior, Fendi and Bulgari.

Mr Vuitton ended up doing an internship at an LV store in London. He was awed by the beautiful products, the passion and the house's values - and has never looked back since.

New generation of innovation

Today, his duties include overseeing the family house and gallery (a space within the Asnieres workshop devoted to the brand's history) as well as high-end client relations.

His proudest achievement remains developing the storied house's watch and high jewellery arms - two relatively new categories that were launched in 2002 and 2009 respectively. They were something he had always been passionate about.

He almost did not join the family business after graduating in 2003, as he had wanted to do marketing for a watch and jewellery brand. LV saw his passion and sent him to the New York Soho store to oversee accessories, where he remained for two years.

Watches are his first love. His first was a black Swatch he received at Christmas when he was a boy. His father, who was left-handed, clasped it onto his right wrist, and the ardent watch collector has been wearing watches on his dominant hand since.

"There are so many things to talk about a watch. Do we have an hour?" jokes Mr Vuitton, tapping the LV Tambour Spin Time Regatta on his wrist.

He changes out watches twice or thrice a day. "For a man, that's really one of the only jewels you can wear, not just in terms of aesthetics, but also the mechanisms."

From 2005 to 2015, he was head of product watches, then of commercial development of high watchmaking, and was also involved in the commercial development of high jewellery.

It was daunting going up against the big boys of the watch world - heritage brands that have made their mark since the 19th century.

In the beginning, suppliers doubted and "did not like" him because the quality criteria he demanded were above the industry standard. "It was not easy. People said, 'You are young, Louis Vuitton is not a watchmaker.' I took a few doors in the face."

The industry started taking him, and the maison, seriously only when the company purchased La Fabrique du Temps - a Genevan speciality movement manufacturer owned and operated by two of Switzerland's most respected watchmakers - in 2011.

The evolution has surprised and impressed watch industry heavyweights so much that some of his competitors have offered him begrudging congratulations.

While the worlds of high watches and jewellery, and leather goods look completely different, Mr Vuitton says they share "the same values, some of the same tools and the same spirit".

"Louis Vuitton is about tradition and innovation. I really respect the tradition, but I'm here also to have my part of innovation and I'm going to be the generation of watches and jewellery."

His older brother keeps an even lower profile than him and works in the "traditional" side of the business - trunks and leather goods.

Innovation comes up again when he speaks of the late Virgil Abloh, LV's artistic director of menswear whom he describes as "like a normal guy, but a genius". Their interactions were brief but impactful.

"When (chief executive) Michael Burke hired him, I was really surprised because it's a different world. I thought I might never wear a single thing from him," he says of the streetwear icon, who died of cancer in November 2021 at age 41.

But in the past three years, he found himself paying out of his own pocket for LV pieces designed by Abloh. "We lost a genius," he adds.

He sees some of that creative spirit in the 200 Trunks exhibition. His favourites include the iterations by Swedish artist Jwan Yosef, French paralympic swimmer Theo Curin and French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel, whose art he collects.

"As a sixth-generation (descendant), I don't want to be stuck in the past. And the idea of giving the same base to everybody and having them interpret it differently is really interesting."

Being his own man

Today, his duties include overseeing the family house and gallery as well as high-end client relations. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

There are few living scions of luxury houses still involved in the business, and even fewer with a social media presence like Mr Vuitton's. With 16,000 followers on Instagram, he has learnt to keep work and personal life separate.

Trying to make a name for himself separate from the brand, he says, is an "eternal game".

When he was director of the Toronto maison, his boss in Canada advised him to be more conscious of how he carried himself online and the "consequences of all the jokes he was making".

Mr Vuitton says: "There're 200 years of history and craftsmanship, and you have to be careful of what that represents. We're seeing the dangers of social media today. Sometimes, I tell myself, 'Benoit, you should think twice or shut up instead of expressing yourself.'"

So he keeps it mainly to personal moments and vacation snaps.

"What I like to do in my free time is run away from Paris, from civilisation, and go back to nature," says Mr Vuitton, who is single.

"For me, it's important that every Friday night, I drive to the country house to be with my dogs and horse. And in a way, that's like Louis Vuitton - we are always down to earth, go back to the materials and don't get lost in our luxury world."

Next up on his agenda is travelling for leisure to the many places he has visited for work.

"It's the spirit of travel," he says, referencing one of the maison's core brand messages. "I've lived in Japan, London, Toronto and New York. The Vuitton family is the same - we always have one foot on the ground, in our country house, and the other in another continent."